The pairing of Trembling Bells and The Unthanks made for an exciting prospect. Both are inflected with traditional folk elements in their own different ways but have also absorbed a wide variety of other musical influences which they combine and refashion to create their own individual sound. I was clearly not the only one who had been eagerly anticipating this evening at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter, as the main hall was packed to an uncomfortable degree, seemingly pushing at the very limits of its capacity. The close proximity of one’s fellow audience members made the usual irritations of the small contingent of beer bozos, ceaseless chatterers and folks who push through to take up a position two inches in front of your face all the more inescapable. The all-standing nature of the event was rather unfair on small people, too. The late running of the performances also meant that there was a mass exodus in the latter part of The Unthanks’ set. Nothing to do with the quality of the music (far from it), more with that of the local public transport, which has to be a consideration for concerts in rural areas. There are no such things as last tubes, night buses or early morning trains around here.
Trembling BellsI put such quibbles out of my mind to enjoy Trembling Bells’ set (supportively introduced by Rachel Unthank), which ran at a disappointingly brief 30 minutes. Alex Neilson was unable to be present (the reason for his absence left to our imaginations), which left a major gap given his central role in the band as writer, singer and percussive driving force. His place was taken by his brother Alistair, so at least it was someone who bore some resemblance to him and was roughly the same size. Whilst maybe not having quite the same flair and inventiveness as his brother (and I’m sure there’s a bit of sibling rivalry there) he proved an adequate stand-in (or sit-in, in this case) on the drum stool. Alex’s absence shifted the focus to Lavinia Blackwall, and the awkwardness of her rather diffident between song manner aside, she proved more than adequate at fronting the band. Her pure, soaring vocal style was highlighted on songs old and new, with Carbeth, Adieu, England and When I Was Young particular highlights. Cold Heart of Mine and Goathland showed the two sides of their new LP The Constant Pageant, which veers between classic 70s and folk rock. Goathland referenced Robin’s Hood Bay, continuing Alex’s proud acknowledgement of his North Yorkshire roots and fitting in well with the North Eastern cast of the evening. Mike Hastings’ guitar comes further to the fore on the new LP, and his playing was superb throughout. He’s got something of a West Coast sound, with a touch of the shimmering vibrato of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cippollina and some of the tremulous quaver of Neil Young in electric mode. On Love Made An Outlaw of my Heart, he unleashed a squall of cascading noise with the aid of a bottle neck slide. It’s perhaps an indication of the kind of music he plays in the context of his looser, improvisational band with Lavinia, The Pendulums. It’s a brief, thrilling explosion of noise reminiscent of the style of free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, or of the formless noise maelstroms of Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo. For a moment, I thought Lavinia might ram a drumstick behind her strings and join in with a bit of savage detuning. But it was neither the time nor the place for that sort of thing.
The Unthanks are sisters Rachel and Becky, but they are also an accomplished and versatile chamber group comprising a string quartet, trumpet, piano, guitar, bass and drums, with various additional small instruments to add colour. The two chaps on the right of the stage quietly and unfussily impressed with their frequent exchange of instrumental duties, taking turns behind the drums (with Alistair Neilson sitting in as a guest on a couple of songs) and on bass and guitar (and ukulele). The sisters’ subtly contrasting voices are at the heart of the music. Becky’s is shaded with a slight burr of huskiness, Rachel’s even-toned and smooth. Both are steeped in the vowel sounds and accents of Northumberland in the far North East of England. When they combine in close harmony, occasionally parting or coming together with surprising intervals, they can instantly pierce the heart or make the spirit soar. They perform one song learned from a local family friend a cappella, and the effect is absolutely spellbinding. The tenor of the songs tends towards the melancholic and minor-key, with a hushed and slow-moving character. ‘Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more depressing’, they self-consciously quipped after a particularly dark song. The apogee of this tendency came with Close the Coalhouse Door, the inevitable mining disaster song, which gained power by evoking a generalised, mythic atmosphere of death and mourning rather than focussing on a specific event. Give Away Your Heart, written by singer-songwriter Jon Redfern in the aftermath of the Iraq war, is also symptomatic, with its chorus of ‘disappointment is everywhere’ repeated in incantatory style. There’s a general sense of sadness at and unease with the modern world, and given the generally introverted nature of the new material, it’s a testament to the power of both Unthank voices and of the beautiful and musically diverse arrangements that they are able to captivate and mesmerise the large audience, inducing a stilled collective holding of the breath. Despite the downbeat lyrical content (and this is essentially folk music, after all) the sisters’ presence is comforting, and you feel entirely at ease in their company. The Unthanks used to bear the rather less egalitarian name Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, and there is indeed something wintry about their repertoire. It’s music for singing around a blazing hearth, with a warming pint of ale close at hand. It recognises the dark and cold beyond the flickering circle of domestic light, but holds it at bay through that mutual recognition and the feeling of closeness and companionship which it creates. The sisters mention their residential singing weekends, which sound very welcoming and a fine chance for those interested in traditional song to partake of this atmosphere.
Becky and Rachel occasionally move off-mike for a brief, huddled consultation, evincing an easeful sisterly rapport. They sometimes sway gently in unison to the rhythmic swell of the music, and Rachel can be seen to lay a cradling hand on the rise of her 7 month-pregnant belly from time to time. Becky lets us know that her sister has been banned from doing any clog-dancing, and so she takes a solo spot for these traditional interludes, to instant audience applause. Again, the packed standing crowd meant that this was an auditory rather than visual experience for most. But the heavy percussive clack and clop of the heels added a stirring and forceful drive to the propulsive swing of the music.
From their new LP Last, Queen of Hearts sounded like a haunted music-box waltz, with a chiming melody plucked out what could have been a celeste or a thumb piano. Last had a lilting, lulling piano figure which suggested the steady unchanging progress of the hours in a song evocative of loneliness and drift. Gan to the Kye was a dreamlike song shrouded in North Eastern dialect, which the sisters refrained from clarifying, suggesting we were probably familiar with it by now, leaving me completely in the dark as a result. They said that they had a few kye in residence outside their window, which hinted that they might be referring to a local variant of the fairy folk. Familiar songs from Here’s The Tender Coming included Sad February and Lucky Gilchrist, whose arrangements bore the imprint of minimalist composers John Adams (his piano pieces China and Phrygian Gates) and Steve Reich (with small group chamber and vocal pieces such as Octet and Tehillim). Lucky Gilchrist was also reminiscent at times of the arrangements on some Sufjan Stevens songs. There was an intriguing selection of covers, which served to triangulate the broad span of their interests and influences. Tom Waits’ No One Knows I’m Gone is one of his beat laments, weary romanticism from the perspective of the gutter. Robert Wyatt’s Cuckoo Madame was his resonant song of resignation from the Cuckooland LP, written with his partner Alfie Benge, allusively addressing the displacement caused by war and surrogate motherhood. The sisters traced the contours of its delicate, idiosyncratic melody, separately singing verses in turn, with space for some instrumental passages in between. It was interesting to see how they adapted these songs, whose authors have such distinctive voices, to their own style. Most surprisingly, King Crimson’s Starless, from their 1974 LP Red (probably their finest) fitted perfectly into the mood of their ballad-based repertoire, providing a fitting successor to Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song, which worked so beautifully on the second Winterset album The Bairns. Lizzie Jones’ trumpet (superb throughout the evening) plangently recreated Robert Fripp’s mournfully singing, reverberant guitar motif which gives the song its heart in the original version, with the string section here replacing the fairground pipe-organ wheeze of the mellotron. The strings even provide a quartet arrangement of the central instrumental passage from the King Crimson LP, based around one of Fripp’s looping angular and dissonant riffs. The group fail to break out into a Crimson-style freeform noise improv freak out, however. This was neither the time nor the place for that sort of thing.
Starless was offered as a final surprise to end the show (and this is the advantage of being present at the first concert in a tour). They returned without delay for an encore, and bade farewell in appropriate fashion with a couple of old favourites from the Winterset days, Fareweel Regality and Blackbird, which sent us out with a warm smile which found itself reflected in the hints of imminent spring wafting through the balmy night air.